Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

What’s wrong with this picture? Many consumers have 4K gear, but TV services lag

A next-generation 4K television at a demonstration in Las Vegas on Jan. 7.
A next-generation 4K television at a demonstration in Las Vegas on Jan. 7.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

So you spent a little extra and bought a new 4K television, the kind that’s supposed to deliver a spectacular upgrade in image quality. And then you watched the Super Bowl. And while the outcome of the game was an improvement over last year’s Patriots loss, that rich, super-sharp image you paid for didn’t materialize.

Even though CBS Sports used 4K cameras for instant replays and coaches’ challenges, it didn’t broadcast the game in 4K. In fact, hardly anything on TV uses the format, despite tens of millions of US homes owning compatible television sets.

Too bad. There’s a lot more depth and detail in 4K television images, because they contain four times as much visual data as today’s HDTV screens. About one-third of all US households have 4K sets, according to the Consumer Technology Association, and consumers will buy another 22 million sets this year.


Yet TV networks still aren’t ready to make the massive investments needed to expand the roster of 4K shows. Why? Because just 10 years ago, the big networks invested billions in their HDTV systems during the nationwide transition from analog to digital broadcasting. Moving to 4K means spending that money all over again.

“There isn’t a rush to produce more 4K content because it’s so capital-intensive in all respects,” said Chris Fenger, chief operating officer for the local cable operator RCN, which just launched seven 4K channels.

None of those new shows on RCN would qualify as mainstream network fare. It’s stuff from obscure outfits like The Country Network and NatureVision TV. And to watch it, RCN subscribers need to pay an additional $7.95 a month, plus a $10 monthly fee for a 4K-compatible cable box.

I’d want a lot more for my money — 4K broadcasts from CNN or ESPN or NBC, for instance.


Remember, it’s called 4K because the images are four times larger. So it takes four times as much data storage to record a 4K show. And it requires costly new cameras to capture the ultra-sharp images, more powerful computers to edit the video, and bigger, faster data pipes to transmit the shows.

Working in 4K is no picnic for cable companies, either. Fenger said RCN’s network has lots of high-speed optical fiber, giving it plenty of capacity. But he added that RCN would run out of capacity if all the networks tried to go 4K.

Then there are the millions who watch free TV over the air, rather than through a cable or satellite system. That’s 14 percent of US households, according to the market research firm Nielsen, and the number is growing as more people abandon costly pay-TV services.

But even if they had the sets, none of these people could watch 4K shows, because today’s transmitters can’t handle those broadcasts. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission approved a new broadcasting standard that’s up to the challenge. It’s being tested in Phoenix and Dallas.

Will 4K go national? Maybe not. Each TV station in the country can decide for itself whether to upgrade. Over-the-airwaves viewers would have to upgrade their sets, too, either by buying new TVs or getting converter boxes, like the ones we used during the analog-to-digital broadcast change-over of a decade ago.

With so many complications, don’t be surprised if local TV stations stick with HDTV broadcasting. And that would give the networks one more reason to go slow on 4K.


That doesn’t mean you wasted your money. The price of 4K sets has fallen fast — to just $100 to $200 more than a standard HDTV. And if you’re a movie buff, you can get a 4K-compatible Blu-ray disc player for less than $200 and watch hundreds of 4K films.

Also, there’s a fast-growing roster of 4K-compatible videos available through Internet streaming video services such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Cable and satellite companies also offer a smidgen of 4K movies and live sports events.

Eventually, though, favorable economics will catch up with the technology, and the networks will deliver a torrent of 4K programming.

“The whole history of broadcasting has always been toward better and better pictures,” said Lynn Claudy, senior vice president of technology for the National Association of Broadcasters.

And high on the list will be the first 4K Super Bowl.

“I don’t think it’ll be that long,” Claudy said. “Someone’s going to do it. And after that, everyone’s going to do it.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.